At least for a playbook-nerd like me, the Baltimore Ravens have made the NFL 5 times as enjoyable this season.
But there’s a sure-fire way to get a team to not do something on a given week. Just have me brag on them and predict lots of it. Baltimore has torn-up a bunch of quality NFL defenses with a Sun Belt-style option offense in 2019. Against the New York Jets in Week 15, the Ravens decided to show they can spread ’em out and pass all night as well.
By indulging in a breathtaking aerial assault against woeful New York, leading MVP candidate Lamar Jackson showed that he’s far from a 1-trick pony. Teams that try to play 8 or 9 men in the box to stop the Ravens’ rushing attack are likely to be murdered with long tosses down the field.
That’s bad news for the Cleveland Browns, whose defense may be stuck between a rock and a 4-touchdown opposing QB performance this Sunday…and have no comparable QB with whom to retaliate in kind.
Who: Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns
When: Sunday, December 22nd, 1 PM EST
Where: FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland, OH
Lines: BAL (-7) at CLE (+7) / O/U Total: (49)
The 12-2 Ravens have already clinched the AFC North, leaving the club’s remaining motivation up to the quest for home-field advantage in potential showdowns with the Patriots or the Chiefs. However, there’s another motivation that could play an equally-key role in Week 16.
John Harbaugh’s squad will have a chance to avenge its last loss, a 45-20 drubbing from Cleveland in late September. Few fans would have imagined then that the Browns would look like a potential blow-out victim in a December rematch against a Baltimore team which has won 10 straight games. Nick Chubb ran wild on the Baltimore defense, rushing 20 times for 165 yards and finding the end zone 3 times. But the Browns went on to lose 4 straight following that win and are currently 6-8, out of the NFL playoff mix.
So why the relative-tight 7-point spread? Maybe it’s a product of Cleveland’s form at FirstEnergy Stadium. Freddie Kitchens’ roster has won 4 straight times in front of a friendly crowd (well, not so friendly during the losing streak earlier in fall, but you understand). On the road the Browns have been dreadful. Cleveland couldn’t keep pace with Arizona last week in Glendale, as the Cardinals cruised to a 38-24 victory. The Browns had no answer for Kenyan Drake and played run defense much like the Ravens did in Week 4.
Cleveland ranks in the bottom half of the NFL in points scored and in points allowed. Baker Mayfield hasn’t gotten any better, sporting a QBR below 80 and TD/INT ratio of 17:17. Odell Beckham Jr. has somehow taken a back seat to Jarvis Landry, and Myles Garrett lost his cool swinging a helmet at Mason Rudolph and will not take the field again in 2019.
Jackson, meanwhile, improved his ratio to 33 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions while rushing for 10+ yards per carry against the Jets last Thursday. The only thing that could curtail the Baltimore phenom’s offense at this point would be another swoon from the defense, but that unit ranks top-5 in points-allowed.
My question prior to touting the Ravens ATS this week is how well the front-7 is playing in road games, when the roar of the crowd cannot help the 3rd-down pass rush. Looking at early December when Baltimore traveled to face the excellent offensive line of Buffalo in a hostile environment, it would appear that Harbaugh’s mighty club can potentially dominate with 2 or 3 units no matter where they’re playing. Jackson didn’t have a big day in Buffalo, and the Bills held Baltimore’s backfield to just over 100 yards on the ground. The Raven defense was lights-out, however, punishing Josh Allen and allowing neither a 100-yard rusher or a 50-yard receiver:
The Ravens’ defense has experienced a lot more ups than downs as this season has unfolded, but even on good days it has been, let’s face it, part of Jackson’s supporting cast. The offense has been the story. Not on this day, though. The offense was just OK, which meant the defense needed to lead, as it has for so many seasons, and oh, did it. Bills quarterback Josh Allen will spend some time in the hot tub. The game plan concocted by Ravens Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale was simple and brutal – attack, attack, attack. Almost every time he dropped back, Allen was chased and harassed. The Ravens came in with modest pass-rush stats but registered six sacks and 12 quarterback hits. Matthew Judon set up a touchdown with a strip-sack. Buffalo’s offensive line was overwhelmed. Allen and his offense still made some plays, left a few on the table and rallied late. But Buffalo didn’t sniff the end zone until midway through the fourth quarter, and it’s hard to complete a rally when your quarterback is running for his life.
Will Chubb continue to take advantage of the Ravens with a fast 1st-step and yards-after-contact?
Quoth the Raven, not any more.
The only thing that would stop Baltimore from beating Cleveland by at least 2 touchdowns is an emotional letdown, and that’s unlikely to happen to a team with plenty of veterans on-board. Harbaugh wants the Brady Bunch at home in the postseason and so do his players.
Take Baltimore to cover (-7) on Sunday.